Letter from Cairo: The full circle

Recently I took the one-hour flight from Cyprus to Cairo to play in a golf competition. Now Cairo has plenty of pyramids and other antiquities. And it has plenty of people – about 20 million – and cars but not too many golf courses. But it has a couple and very
nice ones.

Recently I took the one-hour flight from Cyprus to Cairo to play in a golf competition. Now Cairo has plenty of pyramids and other antiquities. And it has plenty of people – about 20 million – and cars but not too many golf courses. But it has a couple and very nice ones. Being a political junky, I couldn’t help but spend at least part of my time reflecting on how all those people around me felt about being at the heart of the Arab spring. How had the place changed since the tumultuous events of January and February and did the people really think everything was going to change? To be honest, I’ve always had doubts about revolutions. Usually, they go full circle. The French Revolution was soon followed by the Reign of Terror. The Russian Revolution by the communist dictatorship, ditto the Chinese Revolution and so on. So I decided to use part of my time in Cairo to do a bit of research. It began with a visit to the famous Tahrir Square. That was an anti-climax. For a start, it’s not one of those beautiful, symmetrical squares which adorn the centres of many great cities – the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, the Place de la Concorde in Paris or Trafalgar Square in London. It’s a mess. At one end of the square is the ochre coloured Egyptian Museum. But adjacent to it is the burnt out shell of President Mubarak’s party headquarters. At the other end is a 1950s architectural monstrosity that must have been a gift from the Soviet Union. It houses a collection of government departments. In the middle of the square is a construction site. The Egyptians are building a massive underground car park. There are a few hopeful banners and flags proclaiming the virtues of the revolution but for the rest, it’s just the usual Egyptian mess: traffic which is oblivious to road rules, pedestrians who are oblivious to the traffic and hawkers pushing their kitsch junk at you at every opportunity. In a word, Tahrir Square is prosaic. But perhaps it is really the true symbol of a revolution that, like the square’s architecture, doesn’t amount to much. So I went and asked the (English speaking) punters of Cairo about the Arab spring. Superficially, they think it’s great. Mubarak had been there way too long and even though he had done some good things, in recent years he had been too old and sick. He had to go. That wasn’t to say, from my limited sample, he was hated. They thought he’d done some good things. In the media, much is written about the activities of the dreaded police but remember, they had little contact with the average person going about his or her daily business. The people who suffered from the police were political activists. So the central question I wanted answered was this: what would the revolution give them that hadn’t been available before? Was it political liberation alone or were they looking for something else? The answer was unanimous. Everyone I spoke to wanted better economic outcomes. They wanted – indeed, they expected – higher wages and better and more interesting jobs. They were partially realistic. They knew it wouldn’t happen overnight but there needed to be steps taken towards better pay. I wondered how much people earned. I was told public servants made the best money. At least among wage and salary earners. The very best paid were in the petroleum and energy sector. They could earn up to $30,000 a year. Which makes you think. They are the elite of the workforce. The more I asked the public about the true meaning of the Arab spring, the more I understood it was more a hopeful cry for pay rises not an inspired leap into the world of idealistic liberal democracy. I was disappointed. Very disappointed. And in reality, let me tell you what is likely to happen. The military run Egypt at the moment. In November, a new parliament will be elected. Early next year, there will be a presidential election. My guess is the new president will be someone with tried and true credentials. The Egyptians will vote for someone with experience, not a neophyte. It will be someone like my old friend Amr Moussa, the former foreign minister and Secretary General of the Arab League. Sure, he’s a Democrat. But no, he won’t fundamentally change the way Egypt is run. No, this revolution will be as much about continuity as getting rid of Mubarak. I’d make one further observation. The economic expectations of the public spell trouble. To run an economy well requires real political courage. The Market needs to be liberalised, the economy exposed to the outside world, government monopolies broken up and privatised and foreign capital positively encouraged. None of the candidates for the presidency are pushing those things. On the contrary, they are beating a more protectionist, nationalist drum. So there we have it. The Arab spring sounds great: freedom, democracy and so on. We love it. But I doubt much will come of it.  

X